First it was just the laptop. Then came the modem and - inevitably - the Internet. Alice Woolley tells how she lost her human husband to a life of virtual reality
The politician's wife knows her husband is vulnerable to affairs. The golf widow doesn't see her man from dawn till dusk. But spare a thought for those of us who share our lives with a computer nerd: you see, no woman can compete with a Mac and a modem.

Ever since he traded in his ancient Epson for this little laptop thing, my husband has been like a man obsessed. He guards his Powerbook with his life, and refuses to let me use it, at least not on my lap. "But it's a laptop computer," I wail. "Well, you jiggle it about too much," he says. Then he hits me with a barrage of technobabble about hard disks and whatsits. I'm sure he's making it up as he goes along.

He disappears into the spare room for hours on end, living much of his life in a world I don't inhabit, and even evades my questions, like a middle-aged philanderer. "What are you up to on that thing?" I say. "Oh, nothing. Just messing about" or "Just checking my e-mail."

E-mail. Now there's a thing. All my mail comes through the letterbox and most of it's bills. So what's this mysterious communication that enters our home on silent phone lines? It's not from his bank manager, and certainly not from his mother, who's 76. She still sends real letters. So it must be from other nerds tapping away into the night when they should be asleep or watching The Late Show, or both. No doubt this e-mail concerns matters of great national unimportance, such as the names of all the songs the Grateful Dead played in Salt Lake City last month.

Now don't get me wrong: I'm not a technophobe. I depend on the microwave, the answering machine and the video (though I admit I haven't quite twigged how to set the timer). I stare conscientiously at a computer screen from nine till five, and at the end of the day I like to switch off ... not simply log on to a different network.

If I want information, I go to the library. News? Read the paper. To talk to my friends, I pick up the phone. Women are just not interested in getting wired. And it's not because they can't, of course - they just have better things to do.

Computers have taken over in men's lives from hi-fis, gizmos, tinkering on the motor or rebuilding the Scalextric. Men just love 'em, search me why. They like buying the gadgets, the magazines, the disks. They like mithering on to each other about the size of their hard disks. And whenever two or more are gathered together, they shalt endlessly ponder the relative excitement values of Sonic the Badger or Super Mario Lemmings.

The game of choice this month chez nous is called Hellcats of the Pacific, in which my husband spends countless hours shooting down Japanese fighter planes for light entertainment. But then he is an American. I can't stand the noises this game makes. Think Stephen Hawking clearing his throat. A great thing to have buzzing out from your back bedroom at 1am.

But the real third party in our menage a trois is the Internet, that weird wide web for world-weary wallies.

Now, girls, for those who've heard of this but not encountered it, here's my very own . . .

Partner's Guide to the Net.

What is it?

A cross between a vast cub-scout pack and a great school library. No matter how obscure his interests are - the mating habits of the moose, the Sheffield Wednesday Supporters' Club - there's always some other enthusiast out there, somewhere, to wire up with.

Who needs it?

Train spotters who don't like going out in the weather; anyone who fancies writing to the president of the US who can't find a biro; sad blokes who want to hide from the wife but don't have a greenhouse; insomniacs; the terminally shy.

Why oh why? Good question

Is there any hope?

They say that in a few years' time, being on the Net will be as essential as having a phone. We'll use it for shopping, voting, and maybe even talking to our husbands. So no hope whatsoever. Better get to the newsagent's and buy What Computer straight away. And if you want a laptop, well, Roger recommends an Apple Mac. Just don't use it on your lap.

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